LOS ANGELES — More than two weeks ago, Mike Weber went to lunch with his Buffalo Sabres teammates in Anaheim, and his phone rang. He knew getting traded was a possibility, joking days earlier that he might have to pack a bigger suitcase for the trip. The phone call was to inform Weber that he was now a member of the Washington Capitals, so he returned to his hotel and left Southern California.
Weber was back in Anaheim this week with his new team, though he didn’t visit the lunch spot where he found out he had been traded. Washington’s longest road trip of the season comes at a good time for Weber and Daniel Winnik, the Capitals’ two trade deadline acquisitions. A week in sunny California with three off days makes for plenty of bonding opportunities.
“It’s huge,” Weber said. “You get out to dinner with the guys. On some of the off days, you maybe have an adult beverage or two with the boys and guys get to open up and you open up a little bit more about guys on a personal basis and not just at the rink. Those things are huge in coming together as a team. This team is already extremely close, and it makes it easier on myself to kind of fit into the group here when you’re on these road trips.”
While this experience is new for Weber, who had spent his entire career in Buffalo, Winnik joked that he’s “got the packing down.” Getting dealt from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Capitals was his third time being moved at the trade deadline since the 2011-12 season.
As a pending free agent last season, he was traded from Toronto to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and after playing 21 games, he returned to the Maple Leafs in free agency. With his contract running through the end of next season, this trade came as a surprise because he wouldn’t be a loaner like last time.
“It’s a challenge, yeah,” Winnik said. “Last year was pretty evident; it took a while for the guys who were traded at the deadline to acclimate to their new surroundings. I think that’s the way it is. It’s hard. It’s hard to make that transition when you’re a pending [unrestricted free agent], and most guys probably want to stay with the team they’re with, and then they’re dealt to another team that’s in a playoff race. Those thoughts are still in their head: ‘Am I going to stay here if I play well?’ ”
Said Coach Barry Trotz: “Daniel’s been moved a couple of times at the trade deadline; obviously, teams want him and value what he does. The one thing that’s tough, too, is when you’re just a quote-unquote rental player, sometimes it is hard to be fully engaged sometimes. Some guys are really good at acclimating and getting fully engaged. For other people, just because of human nature, it’s a little tougher. I just talked to him about, ‘You’re not a rental. You’ve got another year on your contract, and you’re back here, so get acclimated.’ ”
For Winnik, that means finding a more permanent residence in Washington for his wife, Taylor, and their bulldogs. On the ice, the acclimation has been quicker. He has joined Mike Richards and Jay Beagle on a fourth line that’s playing its best hockey of the season. He’s also become a top penalty killer, taking some of the shorthanded load off top-six forwards Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams.
Weber’s transition also has been smooth. With John Carlson out of the lineup after an undisclosed lower-body procedure, Weber has played in five games, and fittingly, his best performance was against the Anaheim Ducks, when he had eight hits and blocked five shots in 15 minutes 11 seconds of ice time.
But unlike Winnik, Weber will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and after Taylor Chorney was given a two-year contract extension, the Capitals already have the seven defensemen expected to be back next season; Dmitry Orlov is a restricted free agent and teams rarely part with those players. That means it’s unlikely Weber has a future in Washington beyond this year.
Going from a basement-dwelling team in Buffalo to a group with Stanley Cup aspirations has helped Weber be in the moment instead of fixating on what comes next. With his family in his wife’s home town near Detroit after his second son was born two weeks ago, a lengthy road trip surrounded by what he has called his new “23 best friends” came at the perfect time.
“You can always tell when guys sit with certain groups and how quickly they fit in, and they fit in really well,” Trotz said. “If you’re a new player, the last thing you want to do is practice and then end up going back to the hotel. Now you’re hanging with the guys, you’re going to dinner, traveling across the country. You’re in the battle with them. I think it’s really easy to assimilate that way than when you’re at home.”